Friday, January 20, 2006

Descending Dragons: Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, includes some 1,600 islands and islets, rising from emerald waters to form a spectacular seascape of precipitous limestone pillars and uninhabited islands, almost completely unaffected by human presence.

The legend of Ha Long Bay begins as many Vietnamese legends do, with the people fighting against foreign invaders from the north. The god of heaven, seeing their struggle for freedom, sent a family of dragons down to earth, to help them defend their land. Descending upon the waters of the bay, they began spitting out jewels and jade, which upon hitting the waters, were transformed into islands and islets, forming a formidable fortress to protect against the invaders. With the shelter of these jewels of the sea, the people were able to protect their land, which became the country of Vietnam. The Dragons, moved by the beauty if the bay and the reverence of the Vietnamese, "kept not their first estate, but left their own [heavenly] habitation" to remain on earth. (Jude 1:6)

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After two days in chaotic Hanoi (Ha-noisy), we hopped on a bus to take us the short 30 km to where we would board or Chinese junk for a 2 day cruise. The trip takes over 3 hours, due to the slow speed drivers must obey on highways in an attempt by the government to save live. Atleast 30 people die in traffic accidents a day, despite the new law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets or face a hefty fine of a 20,000 dong ($1.25). I often commented on my total disbelief that we had not seen a traffic accident during our 2 days of perfecting the art of street-crossing in Hanoi, but sadly enough, as we headed for the place where the dragons descended, we drove past a semi truck with a motorbike and its driver pinned beneath its front wheel, an image I have a hard time forgetting.

The view of our authentic Chinese junk, the Dragon's Pearl, anchored in the misty blue of the bay, as seen from the mouth of a cave. Docking on an small island, we were able to climb to the highest point for a sweeping view of the bay, other isles rising and falling thru the cool, blue waters like the back of a dragon.

A small floating village of about 300 people, seeking shelter in the shadow of the cliffs and karsts of Ha Long Bay. There is a small, floating primary school where the children learn to read and write. After primary school they are fully devoted to helping their family earn a living.

As our boat let down it's anchor for the night, I saw this young girl rowing towards our boat. I could hear her singing to herself as she pulled the oars in time. Her voice drifted up on the wind, and as soon as i saw her, I thought of the young girl from the Tonle Sap floating village in Cambodia. She looked up at the deck and our eyes met. "Hey, you buy something?" She yelled up to me. I was on the top deck of the boat, and she was far blow the bottom deck, only a few inches above the water. "I'd like to know how she's gonna deliver you goods!" another man laughed.

"You buy?" She said, holding a box of Oreo's up above her head. (Yeah thats right, Oreo's. There's no escaping the O). As I smiled down at her I noticed she had peanut candy I discovered back in Camboida and became absolutely addicted to. I bolted from my seat and headed down the narrow, spiral staircase to the bottom deck, towards the hull. As she saw me coming, she pointed to where a small ladder led down to the water. I haggled with her for quite a while over the price, giggling over her reaction. The other cruisers watched from above and slowly made their way down to buy some snacks. I got the peanut delicousness and headed up to my cabin to keep myself from eating them all at once.

When I emerged from my room again, the girl was floating just beneath my balcony. "Hello!" she called out smiling. "Hello!" i smiled, hanging over the banister, waving to her. A second boat of 2 boys and a young girl had rowed up beside her. "Xinh!" She smiled, pointing to me. I felt my heart starting to sink, wishing i could speak Vietnamese. " Madam Xinh!" She said agian. Immediately I recalled the people of Cambodia would often say "Madame Saag!" Which my friend had told me meant they thought I was cute or pretty. I realized she was trying to say the same thing. I pointed back at her "Xinh! Xinh!" She laughed and asked, "What's your name?" Her name was Saa, and she was 16 years old. When I told her I was 24 she asked me something in Vietnamese pointing at her hand. I was clueless, but right at that moment one of the boat staff above deck crept down the over hang and laughed "She's trying to ask you if you're married."

"Marry! Marry!" She yelled, pointing at one of the boys in the boat beside her. "Xinh!" He said, smiling, and pointing up at me.

"Same old as you! 24!" The little match maker smiled.

"Marry?" The boy asked?

"Ok!" I laughed. How could i refuse? (^_^)/

The beautiful limestone formations inside one of Halong bay's many caves. I fell behind the small group of people exploring the great hidden hall until I was all alone. As I wandered through the magically illuminate tangles of stalagtites and stalagmites, i imagined the boat people seeking shelter from the thrashing waves of frequent typhoons, high above the turbulent waves, deep within the heart of this pillar of stone.

The magical reflection of a hidden pool of water danced on the smoothly scooped ceiling, rising and falling like the waves that sculpted it.

Alone in awe, or so I thought. What is that scary shadow behind me?

On a cool and clouded winter's day, the sullen beauty of the beach looking out onto the bay.


Jean said...

Je suis allé plusieurs fois au Viet Nam , en particulier à Hanoï .
Merci de faire revivre ces beaux souvenirs !!

I went several times to the Vietnam, in particular in Hanoï. Thanks for making revive these beautiful memories!!

Luke Elliot said...

Wow, Melissa, you sure know how to make the most of every trip (not to mention that your photography is world class). I'm down visiting snowy Kyoto for a Linguistics and Pedagogy practicum and not knowing what to do with myself in Kyoto between 6:00~11:00 p.m. I'm in the process of revisiting your Kyoto entries in search of inspiration :P

Izzy said...

i came across your blog a couple months back when i was looking for advice on cambodia. now i see you've made it to vietnam! whoa. nice work! i love the pics, i admit i haven't had time to read most of it but your posts really made me want to go to vietnam. keep up the awesome blog,

alt in ueno-mura, gunma-ken

miho said...

hi, Melissa!!
i haven't written you emails for a long time. and i was checking your blog, you went to vietnam??! cool!!
and you have sooooo beautiful amazing pictures!!!!! like art!!

i went to finland, sweden and france on winter holidays;)

i will graduate kansai gaidai on march!! and i'll start to work in a travel agency.


Marius Muscalu said...

nice write very beautiful...

Saipan Chamoale said...

Holy Crap, I love your pictures!

Melissa said...

Jean: I`d love to hear about your experiences in Vietnam!

Luke! Snowy Kyoto? I`Ve never seen Kyoto in the snow! Im so jealous! Hope you found something in there to help you! When in doubt...head for Gion :)

Isaac: Thanks for checking out my blog! Cambodia is an amazing country...Im sure you had quite an adventure! I hope I was able to help! Are you a JET too? Any recommendations for my next trip to Cambodia? :)


久し振り!Congratulations! I cant believe you're finally graduating from Gaidai! 懐かしい!I want to come to Osaka to ☆celebrate☆ :)

Vietnam was amazing...I hope you can go there someday! So, you will work at a travel agancy? Would you like to be my new travel agent? (^-^)/

I cant wait to hear about your trip to Europe! Keep in touch!

danielmick said...

BTW, it's Jude 1:6. Unless the recently discovered 5 additional chapters of post-script to the original letter. =)

Joel Alfaro said...

melissa this is one of my recent faves of your entries!

Melissa said...

Daniel :) I`m such an amateur! Thank you! Its nice to know someone caught the allusion!

Joel! Whats up with the interview? I have a feeling pretty soon I`m going to be the one reading about all of your adventures! (^o^)/